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The new business of old age.

Posted in Aging, and Life & Love

feet-102454_640“Really, it’s like being on a permanent cruise”, the nurse in charge of rehabilitation remarks. I look at her skeptically: if she were trying to convince me, she hasn’t found fertile ground. I hate cruises and their veneer of forced cheer. But I also suffer from an incurable case of sea-sickness, so I might be biased. The remark, though, struck a chord with the relative I have been helping relocate to an assisted living facility. Or, rather, a Senior living apartment facility which is different from a Long Term Care Facility. I learnt a lot during the last month during the course of intense research on behalf of a relative whose circumstances had changed, and could no longer live alone.

It made me think long and hard about what I might want for myself when the time comes. The moment I started my search, aided by an agency called A Place For Mom (who were wonderful, by the way, and I would heartily recommend them if you’re in  a similar predicament and live in the US); I was confronted with the differences in care, prices, types of assistance and many other things I never gave a single thought to. For about a week, my cell phone rang off the hook: all lovely sounding people who wanted us to visit their facilities, try their food, meet other guests and, ultimately, get our money.

If old age was once a family affair, it has now been fully relinquished to third parties, and upgraded to big business. Depending on budget or insurance, the choices vary wildly. As our case fell somewhat in the middle, nothing too posh but nothing too depressing either, all the places I visited exhibited the same traits: living quarters that varied between the size of a postage stamp and one bedroom suites, communal dining rooms offering specialty menus, transportation outside and different level of cares (that are charged separately). They boasted activities like movie nights, piano recitals, writing courses, yoga classes , bingo, knitting…. Notably absent was the book club, despite vast libraries being available to the residents. The buildings veered between old-world charm (code for decrepit) to aseptic (with candle-like scents piped in the corridors). The age of the guests also varied: late ’50s to 103, with all kinds of physical or neurological disabilities dotting the panorama, and a ratio of three women to one man. Who knew the dating world would still be so competitive even in old age?

The truth is we live longer but not necessarily with the ability to care for ourselves in the last decades of our lives. Our bodies or our minds haven’t lost the annoying habit of failing us at inappropriate times. We all envisage a long and healthy third act, spiffy and alert into our 90s, but the reality is that such (genetic) luck is not for the majority. And as families are more and more parcelled out around the country, on different continents or just living in smaller households: we are left with the choice of paying a number of people to care for our elderly at home or to pay  a facility to provide round the clock service.

old_couple1When I imagine MY old age, I picture a rambling house on the Cornish coast, where I live surrounded by other aging friends. “Why does it have to be bloody Cornwall? What’s wrong with Thailand?” sofagirl muttered when I mentioned my idea, probably remembering a rain-soaked long-ago end of Summer week-end. I am beginning to think my fixation is rooted in my early reading of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, after which I forevermore imagined myself living at Manderley. As adulthood has not delivered, I now envisage my dream coming true a bit later than anticipated. although I should probably be framing it more along the lines of a most exotic Marigold Hotel.

“I am not afraid of growing old anymore” said Lupe, the bright red lipsticked manager of the place my relative ended up choosing. Right then, I realized we are so scared of old age because we have gone to great lengths to put as much distance between us and IT as we possibly could. Not only do we fight it with great energy and enthusiasm, but, when it’s close by, we hand it over to someone else, and we visit occasionally. We rarely participate in the mental and physical shift that occurs.

Walking down the hallways of a lovely retirement home in Encino, a spunky 92-year-old approached me, her oxygen tank trailing right behind. Magda was neatly dressed and fully made up “You know, I must tell you how much I love this place. I own a beautiful condo in Beverly Hills but I never want to go back. I would wake up in the morning and take forever to make breakfast. Then I would have to rest and time to make lunch would roll around. Here, I am taken care of, I don’t have a worry in the world and I made good friends. The only reason I have this silly tank is that I smoked. Make sure you don’t smoke”. Magda heads the welcoming committee that organizes little get togethers when a new resident arrives.

At this point in time, I still vote for Cornwall. Or Venice. How romantic would it be to take my last breath as the lagoon sinks? Very Thomas Mann. Failing that, I will happily settle for Magda as my next door neigbour.

All images found in the public domain

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8 Comments

  1. I have to say this post has in someways troubled me. I haven’t thought of my own old age so far but, of course, my parents aren’t getting any younger and I really wish them many years in wonderful shape, ended by a sudden death in their sleep when they’re tired of life. Of course, reality is often different. What if they became ill and needed constant attention? I always thought that I wanted them or one of them to live with me in their final years but being far and everything complicates this sort of arrangement. We’ll see, but thank you for making me think.

    May 27, 2013
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    • I still live under the illusion my parents will live forever, even though my dad is in poor health. Confronting their frailty makes us think about our own mortality, something I wasn’t ready to face until recently (and not happily may I add)

      May 27, 2013
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  2. Personally I think Sofagirl is on to something with the Thailand idea….

    May 27, 2013
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    • The deck is clearly stacked against me. I realize I will have to give up my misguided (as sofagirl called it) dream of Cornwall!

      May 27, 2013
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  3. Glenis Widlish
    Glenis Widlish

    I am sure Sue has told you that her father and I have just (December) moved into a Retirement Village. We have our own very nice 2 bed/2 bath + small study cottage with our own little garden. Roy has taken (and is still) a while to adjust. But moving in early (78 and 75) gives one time to make friends and settle down in the new environment. One thing for sure that has come across from the people who are living on their own is that they feel “safe”. And by this I am not referring to the crime in South Africa. Especially the ones living in the “assisted suites”. Everything is provided – including nursing of course and there is always a “new frined” close at hand. I know that when we were young Roy and I used to get aggravated with his parents (whom we loved dearly) that small things troubled them. Paying accounts etc. We could not understand ……. why not just a cheque …….. but that is the reality. We are both “op and wakker” – Afrikaans speak for “up and awake” but we begin to see this characteristic in ourselves. Your relative was blessed to have you to help as we are with our children. As Christopher always says “Mum I need sandwiches and a cold drink with me when you start explaining things”. So enough for now!!!!!

    May 27, 2013
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    • Yes Glenis, Sue did tell me and she also mentioned the place is lovely. I already see some traits of the aging mind in myself too. Sometimes I sound like a cranky old lady, muttering about everything that annoys me – things that 10 years ago I wouldn’t even notice. I think my father in law feels safe now, exactly how you describe it. It’s scary to grow old alone and we should never forget to exercise the same compassion we display towards children with older people too. But you are not there yet. Enjoy your new home. I still hope to see you someday soon.

      May 27, 2013
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  4. Taking the time and doing the research to find the best, most appropriate facility so aging parents, relatives, or friends can age as well as possible is invaluable. Your relative is fortunate to have you. Wishing you the coast of Cornwall many, many decades from now.

    May 27, 2013
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    • What do they say? From your mouth to God’s ear? Thank you!

      May 27, 2013
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